Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are common backyard birds that we often take for granted though their family life is interesting.
Bob Kroeger photographed cardinals nesting in his Cape Cod backyard in May and June. The slideshow lets us pause and see what they’re doing.
The male is very bright red: This is good news for the family. Studies have shown that males with bright red breasts and females with bright underwings show more parental care to their young.
He feeds his mate at the birdbath: The male’s job is to feed his mate from nest building through brooding (and perhaps beyond). This makes sense because male cardinals don’t have brood patches. The females build the nest, incubate the eggs and brood the young.
She’s eating away from the nest: It’s perfectly normal for the female to spend time away from the nest, even if there are eggs in it. During incubation, which lasts 11-13 days, the female spends 30% of daylight hours away from the nest.
Two juveniles on a branch with their father: This cardinal couple beat the odds. The majority of nests fail due to predation.
How to recognize juvenile cardinals: The juveniles resemble their mother but their beaks are dark. (Adults have orange-red beaks.) The juveniles’ beaks will turn orange-red when they are 65-80 days old.
You can’t see the food in the father’s beak: The parents feed insects to their young but they carry the food far back in their large beaks. Researchers probably find this frustrating when they have to identify what the young are eating.
How long will the young depend on their parents? Juvenile cardinals are completely dependent on their parents for about 19 days. Around that time, their mother starts to build her next nest. Dad may feed the youngsters occasionally until they are 25-56 days old.
Green herons (Butorides virescens) are shy waders in swampy thickets, preferring to fish in the shadows and nest alone. Because of their secretive nature it’s always surprising to find a nest.
When green herons return to Pennsylvania in the spring they’re already paired up for nesting. The male chooses the location, usually in a small tree over water, giving preference to last year’s site if it was successful. He starts to build the nest but as soon as his lady gets the hint his job is to bring the sticks as she places them. Then she lays 4-5 eggs.
With this dual building effort it’s amazing that the structure is sometimes so thin that you can see the eggs through it from below.
That is, if you can find the nest. Green herons don’t want you to. They fly away loudly if you come too close. Typically they sound like this (Xeno Canto 147343 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)
… but if they’re really annoyed they are much louder (Xeno Canto 145806 by Paul Marvin at Viera Wetlands, FL)
Right now most of Pennsylvania’s green herons have young in the nest and the parents are busy bringing food. At 16-17 days old the chicks will climb out of the nest — or swim if they have to. They’ll fly at 21-22 days old.
Stay alert for the sight and sound green herons. You might find a nest over water.
A Virginia Rail out in the open. Why is it visible? (Mittry Lake, AZ, 23 April 2018. photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Shaking off water (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Gathering food (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Carrying food ... where? (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail feeding 2 chicks (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail chicks (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Virginia Rail chicks following parent (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
Wait for us! (photo by Steve Valasek, botheringbirds.com)
The further south you go, the earlier the birds nest. In late April we’re excited that Virginia rails (Rallus limicola) have just returned to Pennsylvania. In southern Arizona they already have families.
Steve Valasek found this out when he went looking for black rails (a very rare bird!) at Mittry Lake in Yuma County, Arizona on 23 April. He didn’t find a black rail but he did find tiny rails that were black.
When he spotted a Virginia rail out in the open he wondered, ” Why isn’t it hiding like they normally do?” In this slideshow of his photos you’ll find out why.
p.s. The Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania says the median egg date for Virginia rails in our state is 6 June. Since the eggs are incubated for 19 days and the chicks are precocial (they walk from the nest), the right time to see a Virginia Rail family in Pennsylvania would be early July. Good luck! They’re usually impossible to find.
Yesterday Patience Fisher and I went birding in Clarion County. On the way back I said, “Let’s go look at peregrines.”
Promising a view of peregrine falcons can ruin one’s credibility but I was hoping to see them at the Rt 422 Graff Bridge near Kittanning. I thought they’d be there but their nesting status hadn’t been confirmed yet. So why not try?
As soon as we got out of our cars in Manorville I heard and saw a begging juvenile calling from the power tower. Before I could get him in the scope he left the tower, pursuing another peregrine.
We walked the Armstrong Trail in the direction the two birds flew. Finding the adult pictured above was easy. She was perched on the bridge catwalk, looking down into the trees below, and kakking. Elsewhere under the bridge — not nearby — we heard another begging juvenile.
Success! I borrowed Patience’s cellphone to digiscope the adult.
We certainly saw one adult and one juvenile. I think the distant begging sound was a second juvenile. Here’s how I reached that conclusion:
Guess #1: The first juvenile pursued the adult to that area of the bridge but he landed below in a place she considered unsafe, so she was kakking to tell him to move. I’ve seen this kind of interaction at Pitt. Kakking means “I see danger.” Kakking without dive-bombing means the danger is not a predator to be driven away — so the danger is something else.
Guess #2: I think there are two juveniles. The other begging call was far away from the original action and its tone sounded like a juvenile who thought it couldn’t/wouldn’t fly to pursue the adult.
Guess #3: The adult was female. This is the shakiest guess of all. Could have been the male.
If you’d like to see these birds for yourself, visit the viewing area soon. Click here for directions.
(photo by Kate St. John; thanks to Patience Fisher for loaning her cellphone)
If you miss seeing nesting peregrines on camera here’s a raptor family to watch online. As of last night (June 5), there were two chicks and one egg still to go at an osprey nest in Montana.
The nest is in Hellgate Canyon next to the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Montana. It looks like a very public place but the birds are right next to the river. The Hellgate valley is so narrow here that the river, the railroad, some businesses, and Interstate 90 are all close by. We see and hear I-90 traffic in the background. (Click here for a map of the site.)
Peregrine nesting season is in transition. Some nests have fledged, others are still in progress. Here’s an update from last week’s most active peregrine sites in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh
Peregrine watching was exciting near Heinz Chapel last weekend.
Peter Bell’s video above (Pitt Peregrines Facebook page) shows how close the birds were. As he says, “The challenge of photographing peregrines … they’re comfortable up high and far away. This is Hope on Heinz Chapel – what is considered extremely low, about 250 feet up.”
Peter snapped the top photo around 3:30p on Saturday (June 2) as Hope flew away from two aggressive juveniles on the Heinz Chapel roof. She was carrying prey but she wouldn’t let them have it because it was part of her lesson plan. Ignoring the lesson, they rushed her.
I joined Peter at 4p and we walked — sometimes ran — to follow the action in the air. Overhead two really loud juveniles whined for food, flew at breakneck speed, and chased their mother. On the ground, wedding after wedding emerged from Heinz Chapel and posed for photos by the lawn.
Eventually the two dramas nearly collided. Dangling prey, Hope flew from Heinz Chapel toward the Cathedral of Learning urging a juvenile to flip upside down to receive it. He flipped, she dropped it, and … he missed! Good thing it hit the lawn and instead of the bridesmaids!
The two youngsters fledged May 29 and 31, spent the first few days landing on the Cathedral of Learning, then graduated to Heinz Chapel and Alumni Hall. By yesterday afternoon, June 4, the entire family was hard to find. They’re further away from home as the parents teach the young how to hunt.
Westinghouse Bridge over Turtle Creek, Monongahela watershed, Allegheny County
John English and I visited the Westinghouse Bridge around noon on Sunday June 3 and found the juveniles ledge walking and shouting at their mother, “Feed me!” We eventually saw the entire family — both adults flying and three juveniles on the arch.
In the photo below, a juvenile has his head turned away to look at his mother. You can see the “eye spots” on the back of his head that are meant to fool predators.
Elizabeth Bridge, Monongahela River, Allegheny County
John and I then drove up the Monongahela River to look for peregrines at the Elizabeth Bridge. From our vantage point at the waterfront we saw two adults and heard a youngster begging from the nest area but we didn’t see any juveniles. What we didn’t know is that a juvenile had flown recently because …
Around 2pm a young peregrine was seen on the road in the center of the bridge’s northbound lane but traffic in the construction zone was too intense to stop (reported here by Walter Marchewka). Fortunately Philip Tyler was able to retrieve the bird and take him to rehab. The youngster hit his head quite hard and is being treated for head trauma. (Click here for Philip Tyler’s report on Facebook.)
UPDATE, Tuesday afternoon, June 5: Sadly another juvenile peregrine was found dead on the bridge deck (road surface) this morning. Game Warden Doug Bergman retrieved its body.
Tarentum Bridge, Allegheny River, Allegheny-Westmoreland Counties
Amber VanStrien has good news from the Tarentum Bridge last weekend. Using her zoom camera from the nearby upstream park she photographed two chicks moving around in the nest box.
Yesterday the Pitt peregrine chicks reached the milestone we’ve been waiting for: They started to ledge walk.
When we arrived at Schenley Plaza on Sunday morning we found both chicks on the “railing” — the wall above the nest. The railing is an excellent place to exercise their wings and eventually take off on their first flight.
Yesterday’s focus was exercise or “wing-ercise.”
The chicks like this location because they can see for miles and whine for food. Notice how their mouths are open in the photo at top. They’re shouting. We could hear them at Schenley Plaza!
Eventually their shouting paid off. One of their parents delivered a meal (parent on left holding black bird) and the two chicks raced over to eat it.
There wasn’t a lot of activity yesterday at Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch.
Our most exciting moment was when Terzo landed on the bulwark above the nest and a juvenile hopped up to perch in one of the keyholes. Circled in yellow in John English’s photo above, the juvenile is on the left, Terzo is on top of the wall.
Here’s a closeup of the juvenile in keyhole#2 — very brown.
And here’s Terzo.
The downy white feathers on the wall are probably fluff from a prey-plucking episode near Terzo’s perch.
You can see that the “gully” is quite long in the top photo. The juvenile in the keyhole walked from the area near Terzo (keyhole#5) to the spot where he’s perched (keyhole#2). The young have a lot of space to move around.
Based on their (lack of) activity on Friday, I think the chicks will wait a couple of days before they fly.
(photos by John English)
UPDATE on May 26, 2018, 9:30am: Both youngsters were back on the nest! Now that they know how to get up and down they’ll try both places.